“Jeff was in there a really long time,” Nick told me when the Minnesota titans came back to the MMSC the next day.
“He was,” I said, remembering Jeff’s relentless drive to get Noah.
“The three of us were watching from the truck and figured that so long as a little blond woman didn’t come flying through the window, things were going okay!”
I laughed. “Your brother doesn’t like to give up!”
“Yeah,” Nick agreed with a chuckle. “He’s pretty persistent when he sets his mind on something.”
“I can see that. I am convinced that he is too big and too green for Noah, but in the end, I figured we ought to see what Noah thinks before I sent you all packing back to Minnesota.”
Hmmm, I thought. We’ll see. I didn’t expect any miracles. I was convinced that Noah would show Jeff quickly what a crazy whim it was to adopt him.
Jeff couldn’t wait to see Noah and made a beeline for his stall.
“I’m back, buddy!” he called to him through the stall bars. Nick, Nick’s fiancé Jessie, and Jeff’s girlfriend Lauren stood in the grooming aisle, while Jeff crooned on.
“OK. Here’s the deal,” I announced. “Horses are prey animals. They protect themselves by fight or flight. They are safer in groups, thus the herd is organized in a hierarchy. Jeff, we are going to put you and Noah at liberty in a round pen together and we will look for two things. 1. Can you communicate with him? And 2. Can you get him to respect you? Ready?”
“You bet!” said Jeff, who practically danced out to the round pen on his toes he was so excited.
I led Noah into the round pen and turned him loose. He ambled off, smelled the remnant droppings, then went to the wall and looked out at his buddies in the paddocks beyond. I handed Jeff a carrot stick (a 4-foot long stick with 2-foot rope attached used to direct a horse without touching it) and launched into what I thought was a precise offense of words explaining how to use it.
“You’re on your own,” I said and stepped out of the round pen.
Jeff shot me a look that reminded me of my own son the first day I left him at kindergarten, the kind of doubting expression that pierced my heart.
“Hey, buddy,” Jeff said turned towards Noah. Noah glanced at him briefly then trotted away.
“Noah, my man. C’mere!”
Noah ignored him.
I had to help Jeff! So I gave him more instructions. Jeff tried, but was lumbering. Then a light when off in my brain. As a football player, Jeff’s primary language was physical, not verbal!
“Hold on! Hold on!” I said as I came through the gate into the round pen. “Here’s what we’re going to do. You and Noah are on one team. I am on the opposing one. Like a quarterback, you have to call the plays and get Noah to work with you. Except that it’s different. I am Team PUMA, and if I get to Noah before you do, I eat him. That’s how it works in the prey-predator world. Get it?”
“Ready! GO!” and I dashed at Noah’s hind end and tried to herd him in the direction of my choice. Jeff deftly cut me off, sending Noah cantering in the other direction. So I flipped around and came at Noah from another direction. But again Jeff was quicker than me.
Breathless, I stopped. Jeff did too and Noah walked right up beside him.
“Guess it’s kinda crazy of me to think I could outrun an NFL player, eh?”
Jeff gave me a huge, Shrek-like grin.
“OK. See if Noah will follow you now. Don’t look at him, just walk away.”
Jeff did, walking slow then fast, changing directions, starting and stopping. Noah was right behind him every step of the way.
“Ok. Time to tack him up!”
“You’re gonna let me ride him?”
Jeff awkwardly climbed onto Noah. Although he sat with an exemplary straight back, his toes were pointing down, and his hands were held high and out before him if he were water skiing.
I was glad I was at the end of the rope as I expected Noah, ever willing to move forward FAST, would lurch into a rapid trot and leave the top heavy Jeff behind in the dust. But Noah did nothing of the kind. His ears flipped back and forth as if trying to comprehend the incoming signals, and when he couldn’t get the information he needed, he did something very uncharacteristic - he stopped.
I gave Jeff a few pointers and in a few minutes I felt comfortable in unhooking the lead rope. Nonetheless I stayed close, just in case. Jeff did his utmost to steer, turn, stop. How Noah made sense of the cacophony of conflicting messages, I’ll never know. What I do know is he was a perfect gentleman!
I kept giving Jeff explanations of where to put his hands, legs, seat, and weight, but Jeff would overdo every action that I requested, leaning too much, striving too hard, making too drastic a change.
“Jeff, get off that horse and let me show you something,” I said. “Now this is going to be very unconventional, but as you are so in tune with your body, I figure that this will be the most effective way to get my point across. Pop down on all fours, please!”
“Yes, all fours, I am going to let you feel what Noah feels.” So Catherine held Noah, and Lauren, who was in the arena with me to keep Jeff safe, stepped aside.
“It’s really simple. A horse will move under your weight,” and I moved my hips, shoulders and head alternatively to the right then the left. “Feel that? Good. Which way are my hips turned now? My shoulders? My head?”
Jeff answered correctly every time.
“Good. Now let me show you how to stop a horse with your seat alone,” and a squeezed my thighs tight.
“Whoa! For a little lady you are strong!!” he sputtered as I held his rib cage in a firm grip.
I popped off of him. “A horse is so sensitive that one rarely has to squeeze that hard. I just wanted to be clear about how effective you can be without the use of reins. Now get back on.”
And so he did. And in a matter of moments, his riding was transformed. He was both lighter and more effective with his seat. His heels went down. His leg fell into alignment with his upper body.
“You want to try trotting?”
“Sure!” and without further ado he nudged Noah into a trot. I held my breath and followed closely, expecting Noah to feel the unbalance and break into a canter. To my surprise, Noah trotted steadily and calmly, stepping beneath his cargo when Jeff teetered a bit.
“Try a circle.”
And they circled.
“Change direction. Rise up and down with every beat, that’s called posting.”
It was amazing to watch. Jeff was a brilliant natural athlete. But more startling still was Noah. He trotted around as if he were carrying the King of England. Proud. His neck gently arched even on a light rein. His ears pricked.
“That’ll do,” I called. “Go in and work with the girls to untack him and turn him out and after that come into my office and talk to me, please,” I told him.
About twenty minutes later he knocked on my door.
“So can I have him?”
“NO! Why not? Didn’t I do ok? Do you think Noah didn’t like me?”
“You did fine and Noah loved you. I am truly surprised in both instances.”
“You’ve jumped through my hoop and Noah’s too but you have two more hoops to clear successfully.”
“And those would be?”
“The first is I have to get the owner’s permission. Noah is extremely dear to her. She wants the very best for him. Because you convinced me to let you try, and because Noah accepted you, I am willing to approach her, but only under certain conditions.
“1. You go back to Minnesota and ride five times a week, taking three lessons a week under the instructor that I approve of.
2. You read the books that I assign you.
3. You call me every Sunday to tell me what you have learned and how your lessons are going.”
“Done!” he said enthusiastically.
“And there’s another thing. You are too heavy. They say that a horse should only carry about 20% of its weight, so with tack your total weight should be around 220 pounds. Now there is leeway with that number depending on the amount of bone the horse has, the length of its back, the condition and fitness level its in, the athletic endeavor you chose to pursue, the age of the horse, and of course, its attitude and heart. Nevertheless, taking all those variables under consideration, you have to make a concerted effort to lose weight - 25 to 50 pounds. Are you willing to do that too?”
“I will do whatever I have to do to get Noah,” Jeff said quietly.
“Even take up belly dancing?”
“You are incredibly stiff in your pelvis and hips. To be a good rider you need fluidity and range of motion in those areas.”
“It’s just a suggestion,” I said with a smile. “But seriously you need to do stretches. Maybe do some yoga. You are really tight in your lower back. Now, it’s July 9. Can you come back in about six weeks to show me what you have learned?
“Nick and Jessie are getting married in late August, so I’ll try to come before then.”
“Good,” I said, and on an impulse I added, “Here, take this shoe of Noah’s that I keep on my desk for inspiration. If and when it comes time for you to adopt Noah, you can give me the shoe back. If you aren’t able to adopt him, you get to keep the shoe.”
“You’ll get the shoe back,” he said with steely determination.
“We’ll see,” I answered, cocking my head to one side and evaluating him with narrowed eyes. “We will see. Remember you have two very tight hoops still to jump through. So…” I rummaged through the top drawer of my desk. “Here’s a four left clover for you. Good luck! You’ll need it.”